“She broke the bread into two fragments and gave them to the children, who ate with avidity. “She hath kept none for herself,” grumbled the Sergeant. “Because she is not hungry,” said a soldier. “Because she is a mother.” said the Sergeant.”
– from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables
There’s a reason we call it ‘giving birth’.
All of us were born. We all have a mother who gave us birth – gave us this precious opportunity to be alive.
I’ve heard it said, mostly by unhappy people, that no no one ‘asks’ to be born (though not everyone would agree with that statement).
In fact, I think, that often the best gifts are ones we did not ask for.
I’ve been contemplating the work of parenting, mothering and being mothered, this week. I’ve had time in the car to think. Lulah’s first dance recital is going on and we’re doing more than the usual amount of commuting to Cookeville for rehearsals. I’m thankful that it’s a pretty drive. It also helps that the recital is great. Cookeville Leisure Services does an excellent job all around. The facilities and instructors are all wonderful and the kids are learning and growing and having fun, too.
While driving back and forth, 44 miles each way, on clear days when Paul is home alone, hustling to transplant tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and everything else before the next rain comes, I think that birth is just the beginning of the giving.
I’m not complaining. I’m giving. It’s my job, and it’s a reflex.
It’s difficult to understand just how much how our parents gave us until we become parents ourselves. It certainly isn’t quantifiable. The giving and receiving in loving familial relationships is as natural as the exchange of inhalation and exhalation. From where I stand now, I finally begin see how much my parents did for me as I was growing up. I was a dancing little girl too, with cute dance costumes to buy and recitals to attend. I had marvelous birthday cakes and parties, good food, learning experiences, and lots of love.
Now it’s my turn, driving to dress rehearsals, washing delicate tights and leotards and listening to the excitements and worries of the new performer.
And this is just the external form of giving. We have received so much more from our mothers, our parents. Sometimes what they intended to give, sometimes what was inevitable. We receive hair color, face shapes, spinal curves, attitudes and deeply rooted moral frameworks. We often inherit gestures, preferences and aesthetics as well. And we are given experiences. Whether it’s growing up in deep woods, suburban labyrinths, or dense city streets, we were brought along for the ride in the environment our parents chose for us. We learned, largely by example, to adapt, and hopefully thrive and enjoy, the place we occupy in the world. In turn, whether we mean to or not, we pass variations of those same themes on to our own children.
No one could have told me how much I would give, and want to give, as a mother. I did not know how much time I had on my hands to share. I did not know how private my own mind was, until it was occupied by thoughts about my children. What did I think about before? I remember knowing the chords to many songs on the guitar. I spoke passable bahasa Indonesia and studied commentaries on the Yoga Sutras from time to time. It can be shocking, how many things that were once central have flown into the periphery of life. If there’s anything that has prepared me for this radical change, it is the love and care that was poured into me by my parents. Because of their example of being patient, compassionate and loving when I was a tired, hungry, grumpy child in need of a cuddle, I now stand a chance to give my loving attention to hungry, tired, grumpy children in need of a cuddle (even when I am in no better shape than them). And, because I witness my parents now, in a later segment of the life-long act of parenting, I can believe that perhaps one day I’ll give time to those other pursuits again.
In the meantime, I think long and deep on what I want to consciously give to my children. Levon and I sit together in the Performing Arts Center and watch quietly. Lulah is on stage, turning before our eyes from a round faced baby child into a beautiful and strong little girl. My heart is so full. I want to give her what was given to me, so that she can succeed in being who she is. It’s a big give and I’m willing. I’m a mother.
From Carol Ryrie Brink’s excellent book, Caddie Woodlawn, in the words of the heroine, Caddie’s, father:
“It is the sisters and the wives and mothers, you know, who keep the world sweet and beautiful. What a rough world it would be if there were only men and boys in it, doing things in their rough way! A woman’s task is to teach them gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness. It’s a big task too – harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers. It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things. They have them just as much as men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness. A woman’s work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man’s. But no man could ever do it so well. I don’t want you to be the silly, affected person with fine clothes and manners whom folks sometimes call a lady. No, that’s not what I want for you, my little girl. I want you to be a woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind.”